Now in its sixth year, the Wisconsin Film Festival has settled into a groove, offering us an eclectic mix of independent films, art films and documentaries from both the state of Wisconsin and around the world. Attendance is higher than ever, which makes previewing the festival something of a fool's game, since any films I might spotlight could well be sold out before I get this into print. But there's always the possibility of stand-by tickets, and a number of the films will be returning to Madison for commercial runs. Here, then, are short reviews of eight films that I both enjoyed and felt reflected the festival's variety. If you haven't signed up yet, it's time to get your groove on.
Unbeknownst to me, a movement has been sweeping across Canada, over to Europe and Japan and down to the United States, where dog owners appear helpless to resist it. Call it freestyle or canine freestyle or musical canine freestyle, then get out of the way, because Fido's about to cut a rug. And not just Fido. This is a pairs event, like championship ballroom dancing, and playing Fred to Fido's Ginger is the dog's owner/costumer/choreographer, often in a colorful outfit of her/his own. Watching these interspecies dance teams compete would be pleasurable enough, but director Elena Elmoznino, in the 26 minutes she's allotted herself, does something much more interesting: She trumps Christopher Guest's Best of Show using real-life people. Also on the bill: The Other Final, a documentary about a soccer match between Montserrat and Bhutan, last and next to last in World Cup rankings.
Yossi & Jagger
Like a pair of daisies pushing up through concrete, two gay Israeli soldiers have managed to find each other in Eytan Fox's Yossi & Jagger, which is set in the snow-covered hills where Israel meets Lebanon. It's the 1980s, sometime after the Israeli invasion, and there isn't much to do out there but eat, sleep, sing, dance, crack jokes and make love instead of war, which Ohad Knoller's Yossi and Yehuda Levi's Jagger do while out on patrol. Jagger's ready to come out of the closet. Yossi's more of a don't-ask-don't-tell kind of guy. And that difference of opinion will come back to haunt one of them when the movie's somewhat "M.A.S.H."-like atmosphere suddenly turns dark. Fox, who gives the story a handheld-camera immediacy, has called Yossi & Jagger an antiwar film. I'm not sure about that, but it may be the most tender love story about men who aren't allowed to express their affection since Bent.
Back in 1972, Mark Moskowitz read the first 20 pages or so of a novel called The Stones of Summer, then gave up. Twenty-five years later, he tried again, and this time he not only finished the book, he decided that it was that rare thing, the great American novel. But where was the author, Dow Mossman, and why hadn't he published any more books? Assigning himself the role of literary sleuth, Moskowitz began a quest to find Mossman and explain how a book that The New York Times had said defined a generation could disappear almost overnight. His two-year journey takes him all over the U.S. -- sit-downs with Leslie Fiedler, Robert Gottlieb and Frank Conroy, among others. And although Moskowitz sometimes seems to be deliberately putting off his climactic meeting with Mossman, the documentary itself is a loving tribute to writers, readers and the bound stacks of printed paper that come between them.
Let Me Be Your Band
Your one-man band, that is. This documentary from Derek and Heather Emerson features musicians who, for one reason or another, are unable or unwilling to play with others. And although it's difficult to dispel from our minds the image of a guy with a drum on his back, cymbals on his head and, I don't know, an accordion in his hands, the Emersons let us know that one-man bands come in all shapes and sizes, not to mention musical genres. Stand-outs include rockabilly great Hasil Adkins, who could turn his little finger into a one-man band if he had to, and Chicago's Lonesome Organist, a.k.a. Jeremy Jacobsen, who, when he isn't playing keyboards with one hand, guitar with another and drums with still another, tap dances while coaxing a tune out of a steel drum. That these multitaskers do their thing so well seems like a bonus. We're blown away by the fact that they can do it at all.
I guess they don't call it Iceland for nothing. Dagur KÃri's comedy-drama is set in a village that's so overrun with snow and ice you have to dig yourself out with a shovel just to go to school. Not that 17-year-old Nói (Tómas Lemarquis), whose skin is even whiter than the frozen landscape he calls home, is in any hurry to get to school. Nói's a slacker or a rebel, one or the other. He's also an albino, it appears, and one very smart cookie, aligning a Rubik's Cube while a psychiatrist tries to determine whether he should be expelled. He should be expelled -- from Iceland, for his own good. KÃri, who must have seen (former festival film) 101 ReykjavÃk a couple of times, gets a lot of mileage out of people who spend way too much of the year warding off cabin fever. The humor's as cold and brittle as an icicle.
When I was a kid, we used to play Big Army and Little Army, Big Army being the one where we dressed up like soldiers and went on impromptu combat missions, Little Army being the one where we arranged hundreds of toy soldiers in formations vaguely resembling famous battles. As adults, we don't call it Big Army and Little Army. We call it historical reenactment -- men dressed up like soldiers and arranged in formations vaguely resembling famous battles. Actually, there's nothing vague about it, as exemplified by the Lexington Minutemen, who re-stage the opening skirmishes of the Revolutionary War every year on the anniversary of the shot heard 'round the world. Marian Marzynski's documentary takes up behind the scenes of this labor of love, and the result is both impressive and amusing. The battle's seeming authenticity is impressive, the cars in the background amusing.
Madness and Genius
Ryan Eslinger's debut feature is A Beautiful Mind combined with Good Will Hunting, but without the Hollywood hokum that marred those two movies about physics nuts. Here, human relationships have the emotional heat of mathematical equations -- at first, anyway. Tom Noonan plays a lonely-type professor who, late in his career, has started explaining theoretical physics to little boys he meets in restaurants and grocery stores. Meanwhile, two slightly older boys -- students at the university -- have gotten wind of a "frequency machine" the professor once invented, a device that might have cured all viral diseases, including cancer. Since one of them has ALS, there's a lot at stake, but thanks to Eslinger's sensitivity as a writer and director, there's a lot at stake anyway. Shot in shadowy black-and-white, Madness and Genius elucidates the quantum mechanics of friendship.
The Legend of Leigh Bowery
Remember the 1980s, when Madonna used to change her look every year? Well, during the same time London's Leigh Bowery was changing his look every day, each ensemble more outrageous than the one before. Performance artist, fashion designer, artist's model and personal friend of Boy George -- Bowery embodied the turn toward gender-bender outrage in '80s club culture, and filmmaker Charles Atlas has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of the fashionista's various disguises -- dozens upon dozens of them -- in this documentary tribute. An unusually large man who wasn't afraid to show a little skin (Lucien Freud's nudes of him are considered modern masterpieces), Bowery was into both the shock of the new and the shock of the nude. Then he suddenly died of AIDS in 1994 at age 33. It was a surprisingly quiet exit for someone who, more than anything else, knew how to make an entrance.